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Author Topic: Comments and asides on Jane Austen and George Eliot:  (Read 4952 times)
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« on: April 27, 2009, 10:51:28 AM »

Friday, April 10, 2009

While here in Spain, I have had lots of time to do things I don’t allow time for at home.  The University of Alcalá de Henares, a 16th century institution, is devoted to literature and language arts, Alcalá being the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.  The University’s library contains an extensive collection in English, for the use of students learning that language.  While Robert is reading novels weekly for his edification and is able to make good use of the library, I have become interested in some of the works on his list.  I have read four novels while here: Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger,) Middlemarch (George Eliot,) Persuasion & Northanger Abbey (both late Jane Austen.)  I am currently reading another of Austen’s, Emma.

I have written a few words elsewhere about existential crisis in relation to the Salinger.  I have wanted to say a few things to compare the Eliot and Austen works, but our travels in France have delayed the pleasure.

Having read Persuasion immediately on the heels of Middlemarch, I thought a comparison appropriate.  Besides the formulaic elements contained in the 19th century novel, the typical structure of the Victorian sentence must stand out to the speaker of 20th century, American English.  Often with Eliot and occasionally with Austen, I was compelled to read whole paragraphs twice in succession in order to absorb the syntax.  The language conventions of the day, although not unfamiliar to me, were a surprise to my common experience and expectations of sentence structure; not so that I never got it, but so that I had to think twice about it.  My confusion was usually made clear the second time around, although the positioning of conjunctive phrases was sometimes incurably problematic. 

As for the formulaic elements, we must agree that the picture of the social stratification of English culture provides ample target for irony, ridicule, and moralization.  Further, we see the beginnings of sarcasm in regard to women’s roles in society.  (What could anyone expect after giving them an education?)  This sarcasm jumps out of simple descriptions of the social circumstances of female protagonists, and in the case of Middlemarch, out of profound psychological analysis of character.  Still, it is the feelings of these protagonists which drive the plots and give the reader the sense that there is a proper settlement of our interest, much as there is a proper resting place for flowing water.

One difference between these two authors (besides about fifty years) lies in the fullness (or lack thereof) with which each pursues the development of character.  Austen takes us into a world with strict rules of social conduct and stratification of wealth.  Under those restraints, her characters must work to appear to be human; however, observance of the rules and their very busy social calendars hardly afford them a minute to do anything which shows us their characters, without Austen having to just plainly give us the facts.  Of course, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, being her latest novels (the former having only been published after Austen’s death) appear to lack some of the embellishments and complexities afforded Emma or perhaps Austen’s earlier works.

Elliot’s world, under the same or similar rules of conduct gives stage to all types of people in all their humanity and full flesh.  The foundations of her characters seem so based in a personal knowledge of psychology that I could have imagined her to be a relative of Jung.  Further, she exposes the archetype she will explore through her heroine in sentence number one of the “Prelude.”

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?

What is psychology but “the mysterious mixture” (alchemy?) revealing its nature through time and experience, the key to the meaning behind our behavior?  She asks how can one be interested in the history of man without becoming interested in psychology or wondering just exactly what is it that produces, say, a St. Theresa?  It is evident just from the “Prelude” that Eliot is profoundly aware that the drive to self-sacrifice can be creative and destructive, glorious or vainglorious, inspiring or troublesome, and that it is often the lot of women to suffer it.

Eliot’s characters are carefully crafted and three-dimensional.  I would have been nervous to meet her after knowing how far she could see into a character’s soul.  (Scary to think what she could have seen that I might be completely unconscious of.)  Still, it would have been a blessing to read about oneself from her pen, because one could not have helped becoming enlightened as to all the shadows and motivations of character needing a little daylight shed.

I have now finished Emma, and I can mitigate my criticisms of Austen in terms of character development.  Her late works left me with the feeling that she writes flatly, in fairy-tale narrative style, about paper-doll people.  However, protagonist Emma does not suffer from underdevelopment; possibly Austen’s late works were awaiting some finishing touches.  Catherine of Northanger Abbey clearly does suffer from flatness (there is nothing to tell us Austen even likes her, other than that she refers to Catherine as “the heroine,”) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion) does to a lesser degree (as a thoughtful and practical Cinderella who was once engaged to the up-and-coming prince, but rejected him on the advice of her fairy godmother that he isn’t a prince yet and the snobbery of the mean sisters.)  With Emma, Austen does not have to repeatedly tell us about her character except on page 1 (“The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself….”) Austen tells us what Emma does and what she feels, which over the course of the novel reveals Emma's characteristic tendencies, good and bad, conscious and unconscious, until growth and maturity blossom.  Emma is more of a coming-of-age novel, whereas the other two are much the follies, misunderstandings, and redemptions of young women on their way to the man of their dreams.  In Persuasion, I found a concerted effort to develop thematically the subject of influence and power in society and family, which recommends it over Northanger Abbey, in my opinion.  The latter seemed so bent on satirizing the Gothic novel that, before I finished, I felt quite the object of her sarcasm.  Her satire is more cynically derived.  It seemed she wanted to see just how far she could go in flattening her characters and ideas before her audience would protest.

I have heard that Mark Twain had no respect for Austen, and frankly, I had more than one moment between these three novels of feeling I was reading “The Boxcar Children Play Tea Party.”  The only interest that the characters seem to generate derives from whatever is the object of the character’s interest.  Austen’s novels, when they are not about women on the way to the men of their dreams, are about her characters’ opinions and gossip, which only manifest in social situations.  The social conventions and etiquette of the day lent a song and dance to dialog.  All the “action” takes place at parties, which after a while is enough to make one wish the characters had a nine-to-five to vary the conversation.

They were interrupted by Mrs. Allen.  “My dear Catherine,” said she, “do take this pin out of my sleeve.  I am afraid it has torn a hole already.  I shall be quite sorry it has, for this is a favourite gown, though it cost but nine shillings a yard.”
     “That is exactly what I should have guessed it, madam,” said Mr. Tilney, looking at the muslin.
     “Do you understand muslins, sir?”
     “Particularly well.  I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown.  I bought one for her the other day and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it.  I gave but five shilling a yard for it, and true Indian muslin.”
     Mrs. Allen was quite struck by his genius.  “Men commonly take so little notice of those things,” said she.  “I can never get Mr. Allen to know one of my gowns from another. You must be a great comfort to your sister, sir.”
     “I hope I am, madam.”
     “And pray, sir, what do you think of Miss Morland’s gown?” (N.A. P. 24)

Granted, she is depicting a polite conversation with an acknowledged boring character, but this character is present, along with others of the same quality throughout.  In Persuasion, this paragraph about such conversations proves Austen’s consciousness of their quality.

Mrs. Musgrove was giving Mr. Croft the history of her eldest daughter’s engagement, and just in that inconvenient tone of voice which was perfectly audible while it pretended to be a whisper.  Anne felt that she did not belong to the conversation…she could not avoid hearing many undesirable particulars, such as “how Mr. Musgrove and my brother Hayter had met again and again to talk it over; what my brother Hayter had said one day, and what Mr. Musgrove had proposed the next, and what had occurred to my sister Hayter, and what the young people had wished, and what I said at first I never could consent to, but was afterwards persuaded to think might do very well,” and a great deal in the same style of open-hearted communication – Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals. (P. 226)

Emma also has its fair share of dialog depicting how mundane the conversations could be.  After so many depictions, the line between what is merely politely tolerated among friends and family and the general lifestyle of the entire society becomes blurred.  Sometimes there is dialog that is balanced by a character’s suppression of true feelings while speaking politely to and about the cast of characters.  Still, I had to ask myself if the irony employed was enough to sustain interest in this society.  Ultimately, Austen does carry it off with style, and a good many of us, if not most, cannot help but come to love what her characters love and to listen with interest to the latest “news” about the neighbors.

The real joy in reading both of these women, now that I am “more mature,” is in the similes and metaphors of the narrator’s comments and asides.  What are poignant are their observations about life and their wisdom and wit where people are concerned.  This is especially prevalent in Eliot, and was less than I had remembered in the plot driven Austen.  There was little of such wit in Northanger Abbey.  Reading Persuasion, I said to myself on page 69, “This is the Jane Austen I know.”

They were actually on the same sofa for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him; —they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove.  It was not insignificant barrier indeed.  Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne’s slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.
     Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions.  A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world.  But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,—which taste cannot tolerate,—which ridicule will seize.

And Emma, on whether or not to debase herself by accepting an invitation to a party given by neighbors who were “new money,” asks the advice of Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Emma’s former governess and her husband.

Although in one instance the bearers of not good tidings, Mr. and Mrs. Weston’s visit this morning was in another respect particularly opportune.  Something occurred while they were at Hartfield, to make Emma want their advice; and, which was still more lucky, she wanted exactly the advice they gave. (P. 206-207)

The Westons, wanting Emma’s opinion concerning facilities at the Crown Inn for the purposes of a ball, provide a “Venus and Mars” look at the concerns of women and men.

“Emma,” said [Mrs. Weston,] “this paper is worse than I expected.  Look! In places you see it is dreadfully dirty; and the wainscot is more yellow and forlorn than any thing I could have imagined.
     “My dear, you are too particular,” said her husband.  “What does all that signify?  You will see nothing of it by candle-light.  It will be as clean as Randalls by candle-light.  We never see any thing of it on our club-nights.”
     The ladies here probably exchanged looks which meant, “Men never know when things are dirty or not;” and the gentlemen perhaps thought each to himself, “Women will have their little nonsenses and needless cares.” (P. 253)

All of this is trivial when looking at the careful witty craft of Eliot in molding her more complex characters.  Look at how Eliot describes the disappointment of Dorothea, the young newlywed, who had pinned all her hopes on being of help to her aged spouse in his very important intellectual work.

The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same….To share lodgings with a brilliant dinner-companion, or to see your favourite politician in the Ministry, may bring about changes quite as rapid: in these cases too we begin by knowing little and believing much, and we sometimes end by inverting the quantities.
     …How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?  I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal….Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin. (P. 190)

Eliot later describes the inevitable chasm between the interests of the youthful heroine and her weathered, jaded husband,

“What was fresh to her mind was worn out to his; and such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” (P. 191)

Again, we are treated to more laugh-out-loud wit on the subject of courtship later between two other characters.

To Rosamond it seemed as if she and Lydgate were as good as engaged.  That they were some time to be engaged had long been an idea in her mind; and ideas, we know, tend to a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand.  It is true, Lydgate had the counter-idea of remaining unengaged; but this was a mere negative, a shadow cast by other resolves which themselves were capable of shrinking.  Circumstance was almost sure to be on the side of Rosamond’s idea, which had a shaping activity and looked through watchful blue eyes, whereas Lydgate’s lay blind and unconcerned as a jellyfish which gets melted without knowing it. (P. 262)

And as “old Featherstone” lay dying with relatives and distant relatives hanging about like vultures waiting for the last breath, his sister, Mrs. Waule, ventures to suggest to him in an effort to soften his heart towards her and her family as rightful heirs,

“And when you lie speechless you may be tired of having strangers about you, and you may think of me and my children”—but here her voice broke under the touching thought which she was attributing to her speechless brother; the mention of ourselves being naturally affecting. (P. 298)

But the most striking and affecting of character descriptions was timeless and stopped me in my tracts.  Speaking of Mary Garth, the plain, intelligent, and practical eldest daughter of the local builder/surveyor, Eliot says,

If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street to-morrow, if you are there on the watch: she will not be among those daughters of Zion who are haughty, and walk with stretched-out necks and wonton eyes, mincing as they go: let all those pass, and fix your eyes on some small plump brownish person of firm but quiet carriage, who looks about her, but does not suppose that anybody is looking at her.  If she has a broad face and square brow, wee-marked eyebrows and curly dark hair, a certain expression of amusement in her glance which her mouth keeps the secret of, and for the rest features entirely insignificant—take that ordinary but not disagreeable person for a portrait of Mary Garth.  If you made her smile she would show you perfect little teeth; if you made her angry, she would not raise her voice, but would probably say one of the bitterest things you have ever tasted the flavor of; if you did her kindness, she would never forget it. (P. 391)

Eliot takes the state of womanhood so narrowly defined in Austen’s works and depicts a more complex nature.  She demonstrates a love and respect for women and men, and without judgment or pity, shows us the way to true caring for our fellow humans, whereas Austen, in the end, seems cynical and tired of the demand for the fairytale presentation of women’s hopes for life.
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